Over the past decade, Turkey has pursued a "break and dent" strategy against the Kurds, by which the Turkish government seeks to dismantle Kurdish groups and push resistant factions into neighboring Syria and Iraq. Turkey has now come to rely on this strategy outside its border, particularly in the northern Syrian region of Afrin. Based on this approach, Ankara aims to “cleanse” all northeastern Syrian territories held by the People’s Protection Units, or the YPG. Yet this "break and dent" strategy is futile, and the Mahkmour refugee camp in Iraq, set up by Turkish Kurds banished from their native villages more than two decades ago, is an example of its futility.
On Dec. 13, a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans for a military operation east of the Euphrates in Syria, Turkish jets targeted Sinjar and Makhmour in Iraq. According to Ankara, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community — is using the Makhmour camp as a base. Officials of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the dominant political force in Iraqi Kurdistan, pointed out that UN rules require the camp to not harbor armed elements.
The camp is hardly an ordinary camp. Discussing its links with the PKK is meaningless, for its residents are families who have lost children fighting in PKK ranks. Armed units have taken up positions in self-defense in the area to protect residents from the Islamic State (IS). The Makhmour camp is essentially a lab demonstrating the failure of Turkey's security-centered policies.
More than 12,000 Kurds live in the camp, located on a slope of the Qarachokh Mountains. How they ended up there is a long and tragic story, which began in the '90s, when Turkey emptied and set on fire 4,000 Kurdish villages as part of a military campaign to “root out” the PKK.
The story of Sakir Tong, a 37-year-old resident of the camp, is more or less the story of the camp itself. In an interview with Al-Monitor, the father of six, who makes a living as a construction worker in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, recounted how his family fled their village in 1993 and crossed into Iraq.
Tong was born in 1981 in southeastern Turkey, in the small village of Isikveren, known as Bileh in Kurdish, located a stone’s throw from Uludere and the Iraqi border. In the early '90s, the Turkish government escalated its extrajudicial killings of PKK members and sympathizers in the region. During that period, the PKK raided a military outpost in the nearby village of Tasdelen, which marked the onset of a harsh government crackdown, Tong recounted.
The Turkish government “branded everyone terrorists,” he continued. “The road to Uludere was already closed for a year. We were meeting our needs from Zakho [in Iraqi Kurdistan]. The villages were shelled almost every night. We could not sleep and people got killed. Once a week, they would surround our village and search the houses for [PKK] guerrillas.”
The villagers, Tong said, came under pressure to join the village guard, a government-armed militia backing the army against the PKK. “They would keep people out in the snow and torture them. ‘You’ll choose either the mountain or the state,’ they would press. When the villagers refused to join the village guard, they said, ‘Then you go away.’ The village had 75 households, and all of them, except seven or eight, fled in September 1993. Bileh was the first village to be emptied,” he said, adding that other villages shared the same fate the following year.
The villagers went to Zakho across the border, where two camps were set up to harbor them, with the United Nations providing aid, Tong said. The refugees, he explained, had to move four more times until May 1998, when they settled outside Makhmour, a town 62 miles south of Erbil.
The location of the camp in Makhmour was not without reason. Turkey did not want the refugees near the border because it believed they would abet the PKK. The Kurdistan Democratic Party also saw the refugees as an extension of the PKK. The refugees then moved southward, toward Makhmour, out of the control of Iraqi Kurdistan but still within the boundaries of the US-enforced no-fly zone, which protected the Kurds from Saddam Hussein. In short, the place was a buffer zone. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which had already granted the group refugee status, was responsible for running the camp. Provisions came to the camp as part of the UN Oil for Food program. In 2011, the aid was reduced before being terminated in 2013. The Iraqi government began sending monthly flour supplies. That assistance was scaled down to once every three or four months in the wake of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum in 2017. Apart from that, charitable people continue to provide food and fuel to the refugees.
The residents of the camp, which once resembled a prison, established committees to deal with all their affairs. Thus, the “democratic self-rule” promoted by the Kurdish movement was for the first time put into practice here, rather spontaneously and under the strain of harsh conditions. The camp is run by the following entitites: a local administration based on neighborhood assemblies; a popular assembly selected every two years; a three-member council selected by the assembly; and an executive body. In other words, Makhmour became a pilot scheme for democratic self-rule, even before the effort in Rojava in Syria.
According to information Al-Monitor obtained from the Makhmour administration, nearly 3,000 pupils attend four kindergartens, five primary schools, a secondary school and a high school built by the UN. Their diplomas are certified by the Iraqi Ministry of Education. Textbooks from Turkey are used in the curriculum. Volunteers from the camp serve as teachers. Those who wish to pursue higher education go to universities in Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dahuk. Graduates of medical schools work in the camp’s hospital, replacing the doctors appointed by Baghdad. The imams of the two mosques are also from the camp.
The Makhmour camp came under the spotlight when Ankara expressed its desire to open up peace talks with the Kurds. In a gesture of support for the peace process, a 34-strong group, including PKK militants from the Qandil Mountains and residents of the Makhmour camp, crossed to Turkey from Iraq in October 2009. The gesture, which was coordinated with Ankara, backfired and seven members of the group were eventually sent to prison on charges of affiliation with the PKK. The incident showed how risky the way back home could be, even with a greenlight from Ankara.
Among the camp's residents, only about 20 elderly people hold Turkish passports. They managed to renew their ID cards during trips to Turkey, before the peace process collapsed in 2015. Without a passport, a series of bureaucratic and legal procedures become impossible for camp residents. The camp residents received three-year residence papers from the Iraqi government in 2013, but the documents have yet to be renewed. Many work on construction sites in Kurdistan, while others raise livestock.
When it comes to the issue of armed men in the camp, the PKK sent guerrillas from Qandil to help rescue the camp after it was captured by IS, along with the town of Makhmour, in August 2014. The camp’s liberation was followed by the creation of a 300-strong self-defense force, and the PKK took defense positions in the mountain pass. The UN, which closed its office at the entrance of the camp in 2014, is now under pressure from Ankara to crack down on the camp. Ankara argues that the camp has been taken over by terrorists.
According to Tong, Turkey’s Dec. 13 air raid hit a farming area adjacent to houses, killing a 14-year-old girl and three women, among them a woman in her 70s. “About 75% of camp residents are women and children," Tong said. "All people here are relatives. There is great pain and anger.”
Tong added that military officials came from Makhmour to examine the damage. “They promised protection and went away," he said. "UN officials are coming every other day and saying they will reopen the office. There is indignation toward the UN for doing nothing.”
According to Tong, “The guerrillas came in 2014, but they left in 2016. Camp residents are now maintaining the security. People aged 18 to 60 are keeping watch, including women without children.”
The round-the-clock watch in the camp stems from fears that IS might return. “Daesh is still active in the Gani Hazali area, which is 3 kilometers from the camp,” Tong said, using the Arabic acronym for the jihadi group. “The US forces occasionally bomb Daesh targets. In 2016, Daesh attacked again, killing two people. The Daesh threat is not over.”
The Makhmour camp holds a mirror to Ankara's failed Kurdish policies. In pursuing the break-up of the Kurdish regions in northern Syria, Ankara will reach yet another dead end.